By: Bryce Longenberger
Many scholars have discussed Suzanne Collins’ book, The Hunger Games (2008), by using contexts that concern the overthrowing of authoritarian governments, social and economic inequalities, and the ultimate form of love. In addition, I believe this novel also parallels the degradation and depravity of slavery in our own world.
Orlando Patterson has conducted extensive research on the subject of slavery in his book Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (1982). For this blog post, I will focus on Patterson’s discussion of “natal alienation” and “deracination,” two of the major facets of institutional slavery that he identifies. Patterson describes natal alienation as the “alienation of the slave from all formal, legally enforceable ties of ‘blood’” and from all “‘rights’ or claims of birth” (7, 5). What natal alienation entails is the fact that a slave’s social connection and relationship to the people of his birth and heritage is not constituted as legally binding in the eyes of the law. A parent and child may still have a relationship, but that relationship holds no legal standing or rights. Because of this, Patterson notes, “the master [has] the power to remove a slave from the local community in which he or she was brought up” (6). Patterson labels this action as “deracination,” or the loss of native status for any person by being physically removed from their home. In this way, natal alienation provides the threat of separation, and deracination fulfills that threat in the physical uprooting of slaves from their homes. But even though not all slaves are deracinated, Patterson states that the fact that separation is possible was enough to “strike fear in the hearts of all slaves and to transform significantly the way they behaved” (6).
In The Hunger Games, the annual reaping enforces the natal alienation and enslavement of all of the citizens in the districts of Panem while also providing the threat of deracination. At any moment, a child’s name can be called at the reaping. The citizens’ relationships with their children are not legally enforceable because the threat of separation is always present in the reaping itself. And since every citizen is natally alienated, it is at the very moment in the reaping when the child’s name is called when the threat of separation is finally fulfilled and the child, now a tribute, is uprooted from his home and taken to the Capitol. Coupled together, the natal alienation of the citizens and the constant threat of deracination subjects the citizens of the districts to a constant state of terror and fear.
In describing the slave’s natal alienation, however, Patterson identifies several “ritual aspects” that accompany it, and two of these social rituals are present in the novel. The first ritual that Patterson outlines is the rejection of a slave’s own past (52). This ritual occurs in the novel in the hour the tributes are given before they leave for the Capitol, which is the “time allotted for the tributes to say goodbye to their loved ones” (Collins 34). In that hour, the tributes are forced by the Capitol to part with their pasts and renounce their families. After they say goodbye, they are then deracinated and physically uprooted from their home districts and forced to ride a train to the Capitol where they will eventually be imprisoned.
Along the way, though, they are forced to endure many symbolic rituals of natal alienation. On the train, the tributes are given “[their] own chambers that have a bedroom, a dressing area, and a private bathroom with hot and cold water.” The life of luxury that the tributes will live in until they enter the arena greatly contrasts with their meager standards of living in their districts, where they “didn’t have hot water at home” unless they boiled it (Collins 42). Not only are their living arrangements extravagant, but they also gorge themselves on rich and elegant food, more than they’ve ever been able to eat before in one sitting (Collins 44). This life of luxury mimics Patterson’s idea of quasi-filial fictive kin relationships between masters and slaves in that the tributes most likely start to believe that they are somehow part of the Capitol’s inner group. They will eventually have to enter the arena, though, and so this form of “luxury” turns out to be a form of manipulation and control instead. But even though they are forced to live under such luxury, the fact that this new life severely contrasts with their life in their districts further alienates them by incorporating them into their new roles as tributes of the Capitol and erasing their ties to their natal origins.
If we think of deracination as a process, the fulfillment of this process concludes when the tributes enter the arena. This occurs in the novel in the form of Patterson’s last ritual of natal alienation: the slave’s assumption of a new role in the master’s household (52). At the very moment the tributes enter the Hunger Games, they are no longer innocent boys and girls who are citizens of their districts. Instead, they are forced to live in a new home, the arena, where they will become weaponized pawns of the Capitol as they are forced to kill one another and serve as reparations for the districts’ rebellion and disobedience. In this way, the interlocking control of natal alienation and deracination of the tributes seals their fate as sacrificial slaves.
In Panem, however, we must remember that the reaping is used to ultimately terrorize the citizens of the districts, who are in every way working slaves, and to simultaneously create a group of gladiator-style slaves who are used not only to fuel the terror being unleashed upon the citizens but also as a distraction from the corrupt nature of the Capitol. In this way, we can see that analyzing The Hunger Games through Patterson’s framework uncovers the interlocking and interchanging forms of oppression and slavery within the very nation of Panem itself.
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, 2008. Print.
Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1982. Print.